Two weeks ago the Food and Nutrition Service of the USDA published a final ruling in the Federal Register describing changes to the nutritional standards of the school breakfast and lunch programs across the country. Here is a summary of the changes that are forthcoming, with our take on each of the major changes.
“To ensure that school meals reflect the key food groups recommended by the Dietary Guidelines, this final rule establishes Food-Based Menu Planning as the single menu planning approach for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) (including for Pre-K meals) in SY 2012–2013.”
We applaud this move as we feel that menus should be planned by whole food groups as opposed to “gaming the system” with processed and fortified food that technically meet macro- and micro-nutrient levels, but that do not really resemble any actual plant or animal that we should be eating.
“This final rule is intended to respond to serious concerns about childhood obesity, and the importance for children to consume nutritious school meals within their calorie needs. Therefore, this rule implements the proposed minimum and maximum calorie levels for each grade group.”
We applaud this move. Portion control and the relative calorie contents of different types of foods are important things for children to learn about.
“This final rule establishes vegetables as a separate food component in the NSLP, and requires schools to offer all the vegetable subgroups identified by the 2010 Dietary Guidelines (dark green, red/orange, beans and peas (legumes), starchy, and other) over the course of the week at minimum required quantities as part of the lunch menus in SY 2012–2013. This final rule also allows schools the option to offer vegetables in place of all or part of the fruits requirement at breakfast beginningJuly 1, 2014. This is consistent with the Dietary Guidelines’ recommendation to eat a variety of vegetables, especially dark green, red and orange vegetables, and beans and peas (legumes). This recommendation is applicable to the school meals because most vegetables and fruits are major contributors of nutrients that are under-consumed in theUnited States, including potassium and dietary fiber. Consumption of vegetables and fruits is also associated with reduced risk of many chronic diseases, including obesity, heart attack, stroke, and cancer. By providing more and a variety of vegetables in a nutrient-dense form (without added solid fats, sugars, refined starches, and sodium), schools help students obtain important nutrients, and maintain a healthy weight.”
We applaud this move to encourage vegetable consumption and allow programs to sub vegetables for fruits, which tend to have higher sugar content.
“This final rule establishes fruits and vegetables as separate food components in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and adds a fruits requirement at lunch beginning School Year 2012–2013. The intent of the new requirements is to promote the consumption of these fruits, as recommended by the Dietary Guidelines. Fruits (and vegetables) that are prepared without added solid fats, sugars, refined starches, and sodium are nutrient rich foods and supply important nutrients that are under-consumed by school children in the United States (including potassium and dietary fiber) with relatively few calories.”
We applaud this move, which recognizes the differences between fruits and vegetables and encourages the consumption of whole, unadulterated fruit.
Snacks and Fortified Products
“One of the goals of the School Meal Programs is to help children easily recognize the key food groups that contribute to a balanced meal, including fruits and vegetables. This final rule disallows the crediting of any snack-type fruit or vegetable products, and continues the crediting of tomato paste and puree as a calculated volume under § 210.10(c)(2)(iii) of the regulatory text.”
We applaud this move that does not allow programs to count things like gummy fruit snacks and fruit roll-ups as fruit (because they’re not).
“Schools must offer at least a minimum amount of meat/meat alternate daily (2 oz eq. for students in grades 9–12, and 1 oz eq. for younger students), and provide a weekly required amount for each age/grade group. Offering a meat/meat alternate daily as part of the school lunch supplies protein, B vitamins, vitamin E, iron, zinc, and magnesium to the diet of children, and also teaches them to recognize the components of a balanced meal. Menu planners are encouraged to offer a variety of protein foods (e.g., lean or extra lean meats, seafood, and poultry; beans and peas; fat-free and low-fat milk products; and unsalted nuts and seeds) to meet the meat/meat alternate requirement.”
We like the idea of having at least a minimum amount of protein in the diet, but we have some concern about how this guideline will actually be implemented. For example, if “meat alternates” are relied upon too heavily because they are cheaper than meat, kids could end up eating a ton of tofu, beans, and peanuts, which would be less than ideal. In addition, we can assume that most, if not all, programs will not be using grass-fed beef or sustainably sourced seafood, in which case, the value of meat in the diet decreases dramatically.
“This final rule allows flavor in fat-free milk only, and fat-free and low-fat choices only (consistent with Dietary Guidelines recommendations and the NSLA as amended by the HHFKA). Flavored lowfat (1 percent or 1⁄2 percent) milk is not allowed in the NSLP or theSBP(breakfast) upon implementation of the rule in SY 2012–2013 because it contributes added sugars and fat to the meal and would make it more difficult for schools to offer meals that meet the limits on calories and saturated fat. We anticipate that the new calorie limits will lead menu planners to select milk with the lowest levels of added sugar.”
This feels like a mistake. The problem of added sugar to milk is clearly acknowledged, yet the guidelines make the assumption that the calorie limits will help scale back the amount of sugar that is added to milk. I guess we’ll have to wait and see. As an alternative, the guidelines could allow for the flavoring of milk, but without added sugar. Fat could (and perhaps should) be allowed, and a smaller serving size could account for any increase in calories. Not mentioned anywhere is whether the cows who are providing this milk are raised on grass or are treated with hormones.
“This final rule implements the proposed saturated fat standard, which is the same as the restriction currently in place in the NSLP andSBP. Schools must continue to limit saturated fat in the school meals to help reduce childhood obesity and children’s risk of cardiovascular disease later in life. Many schools are still having difficulty meeting this requirement in the NSLP. Several major sources of saturated fat in the American diet are popular items in the lunch menu. This final rule implements two new requirements set forth in the proposed rule and are anticipated to encourage schools to reduce the saturated fat in meals: allowing only fat-free and low-fat milk, and establishing maximum calorie limits. USDA’s technical assistance will continue to emphasize the need to purchase and prepare foods in ways that help reduce the saturated fat level in school meals (e.g., procuring skinless chicken or using meat from which fat has been trimmed, and using vegetable oils that are rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids such as canola and corn oils). This rule does not require schools to meet a total fat standard under current regulations. TheIOMreport did not recommend that USDA require a total fat standard for school meals. The expectation is that the new meal requirements, including the dietary specifications for calories, saturated fat and trans fat, will enable schools to offer meals that are low in total fat.”
No! We need a more nuanced understanding of fats here! I guess that if you’re not going to use milk or meat from animals raised on pasture, then it makes sense to try to avoid the fats in these products (although supporting the production of pasture-based animals, would be a strong, positive, and healthy statement by the large USDA and NSLP). However, the answer is definitely not to use vegetable oils such as corn and canola. This guideline has to get a thumbs down.
“This final rule requires that food products and ingredients used to prepare school meals contain zero grams of added trans fat per serving (less than 0.5 grams per serving as defined by FDA) according to the nutrition labeling or manufacturer’s specifications.”
“Reducing the sodium content of school meals is a key objective of this final rule reflecting the Dietary Guidelines recommendation for children and adults to limit sodium intake to lower the risk of chronic diseases. USDA has encouraged schools to reduce sodium since the implementation of the School Meals Initiative in 1995. According to the SNDA–IIIstudy, the average sodium content of school lunches (for all schools) remains high: More than 1400 mg. Therefore, this final rule requires schools to make a gradual reduction in the sodium content of the meals, as recommended byIOMand consistent with the requirements of the FY 2012 Agriculture Appropriations Act.”
Double amen. Phasing out corndogs should get you about half the way there.
“In SY 2012–2013 and SY 2013–2014 (the first two years of implementation) whole grain-rich products must make up half of all grain products offered to students. During this time only, refined grain foods that are enriched may be included in the lunch menu. In SY 2014–2015 (the third year of implementation) and beyond, schools must offer only whole grain-rich products. In theSBP, this final rule provides that schools must offer the weekly grain ranges and half of the grains as whole grain-rich beginningJuly 1, 2013(SY 2013–2014, the second year of implementation). All grains offered in theSBPmust be whole grain-rich in SY 2014–2015 (the third year of implementation) and beyond. Once schools meet the daily minimum grain quantity required (1 oz. eq. for all age grade groups) for breakfast, they are allowed to offer a meat/meat alternate in place of grains. The meat/meat alternate can count toward the weekly grains requirement (credited as 1 oz. eq. of meat/meat alternate is equivalent to 1 oz. eq. of grain). This modification is intended to retain the flexibility that menu planners currently have to offer a combination of grains and meats/meat alternates at breakfast. In this final rule, to receive credit in the meal programs, a whole grain-rich food must contain at least 51 percent whole grains and the remaining grain content of the product must be enriched.”
Ok, this might represent a compromise for us paleo-types. It would be crazy to think that the USDA would suddenly turn its back on whole grains, but it is likely a good thing to start reducing the amount of (first impoverished, then “enriched”) grains in these meals. This change will not eliminate all of the grain toxins from the diet, but it might help reduce the glycemic index of many of the foods that are available.
All in all, these guidelines seem like a step in the right direction. They are not perfect, but making changes to large Federal programs is not easy and this seems like a good first step.